Words change meaning over time. Take a word like “woke,” for instance. It’s been around as an adjective for a hundred years but most of us didn’t know it until after the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd. It means aware. Alert. Paying attention to injustice on a systemic level, particularly racial or social injustice. Naturally it was used primarily among those people who were on the minus side of that ledger. Those who are able to live their lives innocent of such constraint have a tendency to imagine that everyone is on the same ride in life. They imagine it so easily that they will actually say things like “If that guy didn’t want to be murdered in a squad car he shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes on the street while being all big and black like that,” and they won’t even hear themselves.
It took most of white America one nine-minute-long snuff video to get them a little bit “woke.” Like, maybe? Maybe there was something to the Black Lives Matter movement? A phrase, by the way, whose very existence is an assertion in the face of loads of evidence that Black lives don’t matter, not as much as—you know—regular people’s. Anyway, lots of white people who’d never given it a thought got a little Woke back then. Began to listen sympathetically to the experiences of others who do not have the freedom to bird-watch in the park. Who experience real terror rather than annoyance when the cop pulls them over. Who can’t go for a run without causing suspicion. And so on, and so forth, in big ways and small, every degrading day, day after day.
Didn’t last long, though. Our large, diverse, and overwhelmingly peaceful BLM marches were eventually completely undermined by a few stray bits of footage of dumpster-burners, put on repeat and shot through the social media and propaganda outlets to restore the proper balance in society, wherein white people are the real victims and everyone else gets what they deserve—where murder by cop is recast as the understandable result when someone Other must have done something wrong.
In fact that whole idea that straight white people should be confronted in any way by a narrative that doesn’t put them at the top of society has been enough to turn the tide for right-wing politicians, who readily manufacture enemies for the fearful and dwindling white majority, sweep up their votes, and go on to enrich the rich, which is their entire agenda. All the rest is props and gimmicks.
Which is why we never hear “woke” anymore except from the right wing, where it is now a multi-purpose catch-all term meaning—well, what? Ask anyone using it, and they’ll hem and haw and shrug and say something about pronouns and possibly having to share a public restroom with someone they’re not sure about and be compelled to tolerate drag queen story time events and make our children learn our history against their parents’ will and—well, basically, “woke” now means anything those pansy-ass liberals think is important. Marsha Blackburn recently griped about that “woke vaccine mandate.” Yeah. It means nothing. It means whatever they want it to mean.
And what do the pansy-ass liberals think is important? Awareness that there are real people who fall outside the straight white bag, people who are being harmed, or targeted, or murdered, or driven to suicide by the circumstances of their birth. Empathy, the natural result of understanding. A degree of care for the Other. A consideration that there is injustice in the world and that we should strive every day to recognize and ameliorate it.
Most of us pansies also care about health care and extinction and the destruction of the environment and the livable climate but as long as you can get enough people worried about trannies in the toity and kids reconsidering their pronouns, nothing will ever have to be done about any of that. Woke now refers to anything that threatens Regular people with having to pay attention to injustice. Woke politics, woke educational doctrines, woke ideology. There’s a sneer in it. And there’s a stain. The implied stain residing in woke is Blackness, and it works. For people persuaded that their position and power at the top of society is being eroded by the Other, woke is shorthand for everything they consider a threat.
“Florida is where Woke goes to die,” crowed Governor Ron DeSantis. It’s also where vaccine-deniers die, and gay nightclub patrons, and high schoolers, and women with problem pregnancies, and young black men carrying tea and Skittles, and the very shoreline, sinking under a warming ocean.